Gretta Rose van Riel used influencer marketing to build multiple 8-figure ecommerce brands.
Scott Wooly got LeBron James to promote his business for FREE! (Okay, there’s more to that story, obviously – but you’ll have to keep reading to find out the rest).
But how? And what the heck do they know that you don’t?
I’m going to give away their secrets, and fill you in on the absolute best insights from the genius influencers and marketers on the front lines making it happen.
Oh, and if those numbers don’t impress you, maybe this one will: $10,000,000,000
That’s the predicted size of the influencer marketing industry within the next 5 years, according to Mediakix, a media company that has been closely monitoring growth and trends since 2015.
While that’s not quite as big as a googol, it’s still an enormous number and some truly impressive growth for a business category and marketing channel that was virtually non-existent a decade ago.
Influencer marketing was destined to be a juggernaut from the very beginning. As soon as social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube made it possible for the average person to become a content creator — someone who could create their own brand, their own following, their own influence — the game officially changed. A new player stepped forward, one that would force marketers to alter their playbooks in ways that, at the time, seemed unimaginable.
Jane Doe became Jane Dough, and before we knew it, the modern social media influencer was born.
As brands continue allocating and shifting more of their marketing dollars towards influencer marketing (18% are spending between $100,000 – $500,000 per year, according to data shared by Bigcommerce), the biggest question everyone has is this:
How do I make this work for ME ?
This guide will give you the resources, best practices, and actionable advice you need to create and execute a winning influencer marketing strategy for your business.
Let’s jump in!
Influencer marketing is about being picky: choose the right influencer
For most people, diving into the world of influencer marketing is like blasting yourself into space — you’re out of your element, there are a lot of unknowns, and it can feel suffocating.
At least, that’s how I imagine space…
Ask anyone who has invested any money into influencer marketing where to start and how to be successful from the get-go, and they’ll all tell you the same thing: it’s all about finding the right people for your business and your audience. Without the right people in place, you can still spend a lot of money but see very little return from what you put into it. The people you work with matter.
Here are a few tips for choosing the right influencer:
1. Know who wouldn’t be a good fit
When you’re trying to decide who to reach out to and partner with, sometimes the best thing to do is spend some time thinking about who you are not looking for.
That’s the advice I got when I spoke with Neal Schaffer. Neal is the author of “The Business of Influence,” and President of a social media agency called PDCA Social which works with Fortune 50 enterprises and Grammy award-winning musicians — so he knows a little bit about what works and doesn’t work when it comes to influencer marketing.
“Before looking for an influencer, visualize who the ideal influencer should be,” he says. “Marketers waste a lot of money and time reaching out to, and/or working with, influencers who weren’t a good fit to begin with.”
Schaffer adds that in order to start identifying or disqualifying potential influencer partners, you should perform a simple litmus test. “If your content appeared on their feed, would it be a natural fit? If not, that influencer relationship will not be a natural fit either,” says Schaffer.
2. Don’t let the numbers fool you
Vanity metrics are kind of the name of the game when it comes to influencer marketing, but you have to be careful when it comes to making decisions based solely on follower counts and likes. Some things are not always as they seem.
“It’s not all about the follower numbers, it is about an authentic following and reach & engagement,” says Meghan Connolly, a digital marketing expert and owner of Snowbird Social.
Meghan is skilled at knowing how to build a true community on social media. She grew her own dog’s Instagram following to over 40,000 and now helps other brands run successful influencer marketing campaigns.
“An influencer with 10k followers can have as much or more influence than one with 20k, if the 10k has followers who listen to him/her/them,” Connolly adds.
When I spoke with Kurt Elster, Host of The Unofficial Shopify Podcast and ecommerce consultant for Jay Leno’s Garage, he agreed.
“When it comes to follower counts, bigger isn’t necessarily better,” says Elster. “In one recent campaign, we worked with several influencers. Our largest at 150,000 followers had zero clicks. Not sales… clicks! Our most successful influencer had 20,000 followers but tremendous engagement with his audience.”
Elster wants people to understand that follower count isn’t everything, and that oftentimes you’re better off partnering with a handful of smaller players than one highly expensive, too-good-to-be-true player.
“I’d rather have 10 influencers with 10,000 followers each than a single 100,000 follower influencer any day of the week,” he says.
3. Look to your brand champions first
It might feel like you need to go to the ends of the earth to find the perfect person to represent and promote your brand, but that’s not always the case.
Sometimes, the perfect influencer is right under your nose, according to Scott Paul, CEO at Wooly. “I wish marketers knew that the best influencers are actually their customers,” says Paul.
I talked with Scott because he co-founded and sold an influencer company and spent millions of dollars hiring influencers and building effective influencer marketing campaigns for major retailers (seriously — we’re talking about the absolutely biggest ones, single retailers hiring him to find 200,000+ influencers for their campaign). He shared a great perspective on the value of reaching into your own existing community to find winning promoters.
Scott recommended that, before you spend a lot of time and money searching for a Lebron James-level influencer, look in your own backyard.
“Make sure you look deep at your customers and followers on social media before hiring an outsider to promote a brand,” says Paul.
4. Remember the 3 R’s
To find the right influencer, you have to take a number of factors into consideration — again, it’s not just about reach and follower counts. There are other things you should be thinking about.
Gretta Rose van Riel talked me through this idea and gave me some good pointers when I asked what else someone should be looking for and thinking about when trying to hire the right influencer. In the past, she’s used influencer marketing, including her own 16M+ followers, to build multiple 8-figure ecommerce brands. Today, she’s the founder of Hey Influencer, which she describes as a dating platform for matching influencers with brands.
“We use the 3 R’s to assess the right fit of influencers for our campaigns,” she says. “Reach (the size of their following), relevancy (their niche and type of content) and most importantly relationship (having a strong, trusting relationship with their followers often displayed by quality engagement).”
To ensure that you’re on the right track when searching for an influencer to hire, spend time thinking about the partnership you want to build, the type of person you want to work with, the goals you want to achieve, the brand style you want to support, and the audience you ultimately want to engage and build trust with.
5. Become familiar with average costs before negotiating
Before reaching out to an influencer and talking about price, it’s helpful to know what some of the industry averages are. The investment you make will ultimately depend on the social site you’re trying to tap into and how much true reach the influencer you want to work with has.
Alfred Lua of Buffer put together an impressively thorough resource on the topic that is worth digging into if you’re thinking about allocating any of your marketing dollars to an influencer marketing strategy.
Here are some benchmarks he shares in his article that you can use when talking with influencers about price:
- Instagram – $10 per 1,000 followers or $250 to $750 per 1,000 engagement
- YouTube – $20 per 1,000 subscribers or $50 to $100 per 1,000 video views
- Snapchat – $10 per 1,000 followers or $100 per 1,000 views
When it comes to talking with influencers about your budget, don’t be afraid to negotiate — but don’t be surprised if the quotes you get fall closely in line with the averages compiled by Lua shared above.
6. Pick true partners
To be successful with influencer marketing, you have to be willing to spend a lot of time searching for the right people — people who are actually going to be worthwhile partners who can help you achieve your goals and grow your business. That means experimenting with people who might turn out not to be the best fit for your business, and ultimately being OK with it.
For Bobby Umar, President at Raeallan, it’s not about finding influencers that look good on paper — it’s about finding influencers who will go the extra mile for you when it comes to engaging with the people you’re trying to reach.
“Some influencers only do the minimum amount of work. Others work over and beyond to build relationships and truly engage their audience,” says Umar. “Knowing the difference between the two will really set you apart when it comes to your influencer marketing.”
I spoke with Umar because of his experience leveraging influence and building community. He has over half a million social media followers and has helped thousands of business leaders leverage their influence and grow their business with influencer marketing.
Some influencers aren’t what they seem, so it’s important to spend time doing work upfront to try to identify which ones are legitimate and which ones aren’t, according to Bill Widmer, Co-owner of The Wandering RV. Bill Widmer is a content marketing expert who’s worked with Shopify, Bold Commerce, and dozens of other high-growth online businesses, using influencers to build up backlinks to his 10x content.
When I asked him about what his biggest tip was when it comes to hiring influencers, he had this to say:
“Understand that it’s completely possible (and very easy) for “influencers” to buy followers and likes en mass,” says Widmer. “Before you hire an influencer, do your due diligence to make sure their followers are real and actually engage with their content,” he adds.
On the flip side, some influencers might not look like they have much influence when you consider the size of their audience, but looks can be deceiving.
There’s a growing trend in partnering with micro-influencers — people who have a smaller following but a more active, engaged, and loyal audience. These can be some of the best people to work with when you’re experimenting with influencer marketing — but people don’t realize it. They get stuck on follower counts and end up missing out on smaller partners who might actually be able to help you more than a big celebrity influencer would.
When I spoke with blogger and influencer Brittany Porcelli, she agreed. “The biggest myth is that micro-influencers will not help your brand,” she says. “Often times micro-influencers are more willing to do more for your brand — more posts, more Instagram stories, etc., and are willing to put their resources towards a longtime partnership.”
Joel Hansen is a Business Development Manager at Skidmore Group. He also helps brands like Adobe, Canucks, Clippers and Linkedin with youth engagement. Hansen agreed with Porcelli when I asked him about the value of micro-influencers.
“The biggest myth I believe that stands to be true is ‘the more followers an influencer has the more effective a campaign can be’. You’d be surprised the amount of impact a variety of micro influencers or a local community leader can have compared to a celebrity account with 40% dormant followers,” says Hansen.
Finding true partners, and working to build long-lasting partnerships with them over time, will ultimately make your investment in influencer marketing much more worthwhile in the long run.
Influencer marketing is about more than likes and followers: Use influencers as content creators
Launching a successful influencer marketing campaign isn’t just about connecting with the right influencer — to be effective, you have to take it one step further: you need to find the right influencer who can help you create the right content for your audience.
Influencers only exist because they create content that resonates with an audience. While we’re here to discuss how to optimize influencer marketing, it all leads back to creating great content.
Content is still king.
You can hire a dazzling influencer with hundreds of thousands of followers, but if at the end of the day they can’t help you connect with your audience, you’re just wasting your time and money. That’s where content comes into play.
Here’s a real life example — through my advertising agency, my team and I have done some crazy stuff, like helping a client scale from $20k to $4M in a year. As an ads company, we’re accustomed to paid promotion as a means of delivering content, and less accustomed to leveraging an influencer’s influence to deliver content.
In both cases, the content is the real draw that creates value with an audience. The influencer / paid promotion are just the vehicles.
Influencer + Content is the key formula for influencer marketing. Here are a few tips that will help ensure that you’re set up to build winning content into your influencer marketing campaigns:
1. Evaluate influence AND content
A big part of your time discovering and evaluating prospective influencers should be spent looking at the other content they create for themselves and for the other brands they work with.
Ted Rubin, CMO at Photofy, supported this line of thinking when I asked him about how content plays a role in influencer marketing campaigns. Rubin was the Chief Social Marketing Officer of Collective Bias (an early entrant to the content and influencer marketing space). Today, he’s a well-known speaker, author, and consultant. Here’s what he told me:
“The vast majority of ‘influencers’ are simply talented content creators,” says Rubin. “Treat their influence like you would good content. Consumers like it, share it, and rely upon it to help make decisions…so measure it the same way you would media.”
In other words, don’t choose to work with an influencer solely based on the size of their audience and the level of engagement they receive. Evaluate the type and quality of content they create, and decide if it aligns with your brand and your audience.
2. Throw out the cookie cutters
Every influencer will approach content differently. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.
Because of the unique relationship and opportunity that exists, you should spend time developing an individual content strategy for each influencer you work with.
“Work with individual influencers to brainstorm ideas for co-creating content,” recommends Kerry O’Shea Gorgone, Host, Punch Out With Katie and Kerry.
When I asked her to elaborate on what she meant, she said, “each one has more reach on one platform or another, and specializes in certain types of content. Some would be perfect for live tweeting your conference sessions, but others are qualified to handle on-site interviews or to create original video content.
“Know your influencers and create a strategy that maximizes each one’s unique talents and abilities,” she adds.
Spending time upfront to think about the unique content a particular influencer could create for your brand and audience will help ensure that you’re building a more interesting and compelling library of content in the long run. It’ll also help you experiment with different types and styles of content in order to learn what your audience likes and responds to best.
3. Look within your existing community
When you’re looking for good content partners, sometimes it’s as easy as looking within your existing community.
“Influence is everywhere, so consider not just collaborating with micro and nano influencers but also with your followers, your fans, your customers, your partners, and even your employees,” says Neal Schaffer.
David Brier, Chief Gravity Defier at DBD International, took this idea one step further when I spoke with him about where to go to find great influencers. Looking at your existing community is one thing — but what about even looking to your own profile?
“BECOME the influencer you seek. Seriously. Too many seek some “impact” from others who have done the hustle,” he says. “The BEST influencer marketing is to elevate your own profile to become an influencer.”
And that’s not just talk for David.
Daymond John (yes — the Shark Tank guy) calls Brier “brilliant with branding.” Grant Cardone calls him “a branding genius,” and Claude Silver, Chief Heart Officer of Gary Vee’s VaynerMedia, when asked about David’s bestseller said, “This is not only an outstanding book on branding but is an excellent example of branding, design and content I keep in my office. I only wish I had this book at the beginning of my career.”
Before you spend too much time evaluating talent agencies and negotiating with top-dollar influencers, find out if you have any passionate and willing content creators within your own audience (it could even be you!). Going this route will allow you to spin up campaigns sooner — you won’t have to spend time educating influencers on your products and business because they already know it well).
It’ll also likely cost you less money — brand loyalists and brand champions might help you in exchange for free products or because they simply want to see your business continue to succeed.
Influencer marketing isn’t a “quick fix”: measure influencer campaign success
Because influencer marketing pretty much always requires you to allocate a significant portion of your marketing budget toward something that might not make a directly attributable impact on your business, it’s important to think about how you’re going to ultimately measure success.
Here are a few tips to consider as you think about what you’re trying to get back from your influencer marketing campaigns:
1. Be willing to play the long game
The first thing you need to realize is that influencer marketing is not a get rich quick scheme. It can take a while to see any sort of return or impact.
“Do not expect people to buy your product straight away when they first see it promoted from an influencer,” says Nathan Chan, CEO of Foundr Magazine.
I talked with Nathan, who used influencer marketing to build Foundr from nothing to one of the top 10 business magazines in the app store in just a couple of years, about this idea of having patience (which as an entrepreneur is really, really hard to practice). Chan recommends trying anyway and to not be discouraged just because you’re not seeing sales skyrocket right away.
“Be prepared to play the long game, a lot of those influencer’s fans will follow your company, and eventually buy over time,” he says.
Chan also wants people to realize the additional long-term benefits of building out an influencer network for your brand — benefits that don’t always appear right after launching a campaign.
“It’s not just about generating a return, it’s about the content and the long game and building your brand using influencers overtime,” says Chan.
Ted Rubin, mentioned earlier in this article, agrees. He says that the idea that you get immediate and instant return from an influencer in the form of sales is a myth.
He explains that there’s this mistaken belief that, “influencers actually influence people in the way that they jump up to go buy something when those you are paying as influencers tell them to.”
Rubin adds, “there are perhaps a handful of people who can make something like that happen and they don’t come cheap. The majority of “good’ ones create great content that consumers like to read and watch, and via that ability provide a great deal of reach and attention.”
2. Know which metrics truly matter
When you’re thinking about what success looks like in an influencer marketing campaign, you also have to recognize the difference between views and true engagement.
“I’m glad that the industry overall is maturing but I think that many people fall into vanity vs true engagement metrics,” says Brian Wallace, Founder and President of NowSourcing.
When I spoke with Wallace, who, in addition to running his company, is a Google Small Business Advisor and on the SXSW Advisory Board, he confirmed something that I’ve been hearing from many other experts in the industry. “If you are just counting a number of likes, you’re likely to be disappointed and in many cases those numbers are going away,” said Wallace.
In other words, don’t get distracted by big numbers. Focus on how your audience is engaging with and responding to influencer content to truly understand how it might be impacting your business and relationships with potential buyers.
3. Recognize the true value of an influencer marketing campaign
When you’re spending real dollars, it’s easy to want to dig into the exact financial impact of a campaign — you want to be able to measure direct ROI. But with influencer marketing, you have to understand that the return is significantly more complex. It goes back to being willing to play the long game and seeing what impact you can make to your business over time and in what ways.
Nathan Chan, mentioned earlier in this article, shares an example to help bring this point home:
“When working with influencers it shouldn’t be treated as a transaction and measured just on ROI. This is only one measurement of success on working with a particular influencer,” says Chan. “What about the content they create for you? If you paid Kylie Jenner to do a post, the post, yes, might make you $$$ from her followers, but what about the ability to use that image of her with your product in your PPC ads? What is the cost of that? These are the things that you need to be looking at for a successful influencer marketing strategy / campaign!”
Chan is essentially saying that although you might not see an immediate or direct return on your investment, it doesn’t mean you won’t be able to add value to your business down the road. The point is that you are building a library of content that you can repurpose in a number of ways and on a number of platforms.
4. Be true to your primary objectives
Before getting too deep into launching an influencer marketing campaign or hiring influencers, you have to set some clear objectives.
“Know the specific objectives for why you want to work with influencers and how you will measure their success,” says Neal Schaffer, mentioned earlier in this article.
Schaffer explains that setting clear objectives will help you evaluate performance during a campaign and allow you to make the right adjustments along the way.
“Every influencer will deliver different results, so being able to measure and compare their effectiveness will allow you to achieve greater ROI by shifting more budget to well performing influencers,” says Schaffer.
This willingness to plan ahead and make decisions in real-time is the difference between launching a one-time influencer marketing experiment that doesn’t show clear ROI and building a repeatable, scalable strategy that brings measurable ROI and value to your business long into the future.
Influencer marketing is a repeatable process: How to be successful
In most cases, you’re probably not going to experience overnight success when you launch an influencer marketing campaign. It’s going to take time, experimentation, and effort.
That being said, there are some things you can do that can help ensure your success:
1. Be patient and put in the time
Influencer marketing is just as much an art as it is a science. You have to understand that going into it. There’s an art to building community and content that will resonate with people.
Ted Rubin, mentioned earlier in the article, mirrors this line of thinking:
“Influencer marketing, when used to its best effect, is about building a network of business relationships that will yield results over time,” he says. “You’ll get as much out of the program as you put into it. So if your goal is to find a platform, and make this like programmatic advertising, and do whatever you can to automate the process… you will be throwing the majority of your budget down the drain.”
2. Know where it fits in your overall strategy
Don’t just invest in influencer marketing because it’s the latest buzz word you’re reading about everywhere. Instead, decide if it’s actually a worthwhile tactic to test in order to meet your goals and better serve your audience.
Sofiya Deva agrees. She’s the VP of Marketing at Zen Media and has won both a gold ADDY and a platinum Hermes award, and has worked with incredible brands like Chase, the US Navy and Tupperware.
“If you want to invest in influencer marketing, make sure you understand how it fits into your larger marketing strategy, and more importantly — your customer journey,” she says.
Deva believes that before jumping into this particular tactic, you should ask yourself, “What will engaging with these influencers allow your customers/clients to do, say and be?”
Joel Hansen, who currently directs CIMC (Western Canada’s largest marketing/PR conference) and works with brands like Adobe, Canucks, Clippers and Linkedin with Youth Engagement, echos what Deva says with some very practical feedback on what he likes to see from brands that reach out to influencers, “A brand guide and overview of the marketing campaign and how you play a role in shaping the outcome can be a very helpful foundation to introduce a relationship. I always appreciate when there is proof that they’ve done the research on my content and know my audience demographics. Lastly, a couple references from other influencers they’ve worked with always goes a long way.”
When I talked with Sujan Patel, one of the most recognizable names in growth hacking and founder of Mailshake, about this topic, he suggests that people should not get too enamored by the idea that influencer marketing has a guaranteed and immediate return no matter what.
Instead of putting all your eggs (and money) in one basket, he wants people to focus instead on what truly matters.
“Influencer marketing can drive huge sales and drastically grow your business,” Patel says. “It can be and has been for certain companies but it’s not always the case. It’s worked well for direct-to-consumer companies and ecommerce businesses but, as time passes, the things that worked a few years ago will become less effective and played out. Don’t get caught up in the sexy-ness of an influencer marketing campaign…instead, focus on building a product and brand that people love.”
3. Build out your network
If you’re going to experiment with influencer marketing, don’t just dip your toes in — do a cannonball.
Don’t just work with one influencer. Instead, work with and learn from many.
“Work with multiple influencers at once, and use those relationships to cross-promote each influencer’s post,” says Bill Widmer, who was mentioned earlier. “Tag them in one another’s posts and help them grow off each other’s audiences as well as your own.”
Gretta van Riel has similar advice to share.
“What you’re looking for is audience overlap amongst your influencers. This repetition will mean far higher conversion rates as consumers often need to be exposed to a brand several times before purchasing,” she says. “We look for what we call influencer ‘clusters’ or groups of influencers that share very similar audiences for example family members, friendship circles or the fact they’ve all been on a recent reality tv show for example.”
Blogger and influencer Brittany Porcelli recommends building a strategy that leverages both major and micro-influencers to get the best reach and engagement possible.
“Use a combination of influencers and micro-influencers with higher engagement to help drive purchase,” says Porcelli. “Micro-influencers help push your message through the lower funnel.”
4. Keep experimenting with influencer marketing
Finally, never stop experimenting and learning—even while a campaign is still running.
Larry Kim, CEO at MobileMonkey and founder of WordStream (which was acquired by Gannett for $150 million), explains why you need to be constantly testing in order to experience the full potential that influencer marketing has to offer.
“There is a diminishing return due to audience fatigue. The first time you partner with an influencer, your products/services are totally new to that audience,” says Kim. “Over time, the novelty wears off. It’s similar to the concept of “Ad Fatigue” in online advertising. Thus, you need to keep changing the content campaign being pushed by your influencers, and periodically switch influencers you partner with, too.”
Goldie Chan, founder of Warm Robots, agrees. Goldie is the top LinkedIn Video creator with the longest running daily video series on the platform amassing over 5 million views and counting earning her the title of, “The Oprah of LinkedIn” by Huffpost. She’s also a global keynote speaker and digital strategist.
“Influencer marketing is constantly in flux,” she says. “One day a platform may be the number 1 way to drive traffic and the next day, it may fall completely flat. It’s not always influencer-specific, on occasion it is the overall health of a platform that can determine campaign success.”
Influencer marketing is not a one-size-fits-all strategy. It’s not a golden nugget or a silver bullet. Like most marketing tactics, it’s easy to plan but hard to implement effectively.
It takes time, money, and effort. You’re going to fail, but you’re also going to learn, and through the process, you can build a strategy that meets the needs of your business, and more importantly, your audience.
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This post was co-authored with Rob Wormley.